Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beechdrops, Heartleaf, and Tufted Titmice

If you sit long enough and are very quiet, you get to see special things in nature. Today, for example, I finally settled against an oak tree to finish the sketch of the Beechdrops (above). It was about 60 degrees, warm for January, and a soft breeze blew through the treetops, Daisy slept beside me. As I sketched - scritch-scratch-scritch-scratch - I heard birds about, some closer than others. But they got closer and closer, and louder, until I realized that a mixed flock of birds had come to Meetinghouse Creek to bathe. My friend Susan and I have experienced this before and have read about this common practice of birds... but every time it happens it's amazing. Today Robins, Tufted Titmice, Yellow-rumped warblers, Chickadees, as well as Goldfinch, and a Downy Woodpecker perched above and around me, flying down to the water in the shallow pool behind a fallen log in the slow-moving creek to splash and wash, then fly back to a branch to dry. They're very vocal during this - I imagine them telling each other, MY TURN! MY TURN!

I went back to my drawing but kept my binoculars in my lap and used them to watch the Downy Woodpecker work on a dead branch. After a few minutes I found myself watching two Tufted Titmice in a Beech tree. They would land in the crotch of the big tree, and I could have sworn they disappeared, but I was looking into the sun, so the little birds were nothing but silhouettes when they landed. I turned the page of my journal and grabbed a pencil to make a quick sketch of the tree they were in. Something was going on up there, at least 30 feet up in that tree (maybe more) and I had to know what it was. I packed everything up and hiked to the other side of the creek and UP the steep bluff to a point where I was even with the spot (the crotch of the tree) where I might see the birds from the opposite side. It was no surprise (and yet I was so pleased!) to see a small hole in the scarred crotch of the tree. (see sketch below) I didn't stay long enough to see birds land...the sun was setting and by this time the birds were gone anyway... but as soon as I got home I looked up "nesting habits of Tufted Titmice."

"Titmice will build nests in various types of trees including elms, maples, oaks, pines, and beech. A cavity nester, the Titmouse builds its nest in tree holes using a variety of materials that include dead leaves, moss, bark strips, grass, hair, fur, feathers, string, cloth, and snakeskin. Tufted Titmice want their nests mounted up high, like 32 to 36 feet above the ground."
This is information I will never forget because I learned from experiencing it. What a thrill!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cordyceps capitata on South-facing Slope

The steep slope Daisy and I explored today faces south and drops down to Meetinghouse Creek at its confluence with Lawson's Fork. We crunched through the brown leaf litter that covers the hillside, and although Daisy bounded up the hill without a pause, I had to take careful steps so I wouldn't slide, and grab small trees occasionally to pull myself up. Boulders large and small are scattered about, some making ideal resting spots with a great winter view! From there, through naked trees, you can see across Meetinghouse Creek to the other high, rocky ridge. Also, through tall mountain laurels, you can see Lawson's Fork and across to the ridge beyond.

While resting I noticed a wildlife track leading up the hill at an angle, so I followed it. We topped the ridge and I was about to follow Daisy into the mountain laurel thicket when she stopped short and started barking like crazy at something I couldn't see. No telling what it was - I've seen her bark like this at strange dogs who've wandered into her territory, but also at a bag of garbage I put beside my car to be taken off. Anything "new" that she's not expecting. But I trusted that there was something there, so I turned around and headed back to the creek.

I discovered the tiny black mushrooms growing along this ridge. While investigating I brushed the leaves away to expose strange yellow stalks, the larger only 2"long. I read later in my field guide that they are Cordyceps capitata, common name Headlike Cordyceps, and they arise from an underground, truffle-like fungus. Interesting note: these are hallucinogenic mushrooms, used by shamans in Mexico for divining the future!

No luck in identifying the leaves without a flower to help. I'll keep an eye on them this spring.

Lawson's Fork - looking downstream

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dogwood Leaf and Downy Woodpecker Feathers

What a weather day! We woke around 5 a.m. to thunder and lightning - such a treat in January. Around breakfast came pouring rain that later in the morning slackened to drizzle and fog. After lunch the rain stopped, but left behind dark scudding clouds flying overhead, parting occasionally to reveal tiny patches of blue. By the time I put on my hiking shoes (2:00) and headed out the wind had picked up and the sun shone brightly.

Daisy, anxious to be off, dashed away down the front path followed by Atticus (our neighbor-dog), our old Calico cat named Cookie (who acted very nonchalant and only half interested in what was going on), and me. We wandered through piney woods until the wind rose high enough to break a branch and send it crashing down. Yikes! It's hard to know which trees have pine beetles and are apt to fall at any time, so we hurried on, passing by the big rocks at the sharp bend of Old Thompson Road, and a big flat stone covered in shockingly bright green moss. Close to the stone, under years of leaf litter, lies a rusty metal bumper of a car. For all I know the whole car is down there, having missed the curve many moons ago. I know it's possible, because not far from this spot, in the woods beside a sharp curve of Emma Cudd Road, lies the bent and rusted carcass of a '59 Chevy!

My little party stepped out onto the pipeline and headed in the direction of Lawson's Fork. Along the edge of the pipeline I noticed a dogwood leaf (above) that was stuck on a small branch of the tree. The leaf shimmied in the wind but even in the gusts, never seemed in danger of being lifted off the branch that so neatly fit through the tiny leaf-hole. I wondered as I drew - which came first? Was there a hole in the leaf that just happened to fall exactly in the right way to land on the small branch? or did the leaf fall onto the branch, which punched the hole, and held the leaf as it dried? I know, I know....this is certainly not one of life's biggest mysteries, but I wonder just the same.

Daisy chased Atticus around in the sun while I drew, Cookie the cat purred and rubbed against tree trunks in the small parcel of woods between two pipelines. Meooowwww! Once I finished we continued on, passing through an old homesite with moss-covered bricks and a rusty wire fence growing into an oak trunk, and on down, close to the river where there is a huge fallen tree covered in Stereum ostrea, or False Turkey Tails, and Stereum complicatum, Parchment Fungus. The tree proved to be a perfect stage for Cookie, who strode up and down, showing off her beauty.

Truly one of my favorite kind of days!

False Turkey Tail tree before Cookie became interested...

Cookie modeling on the False Turkey Tails.

Parchment Fungus
A fence has become part of the tree at the old homesite.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Yucca filamentosa

I've been fascinated for years by the native yucca plants that grow on the ridge above Lawson's Fork, so I decided today to hike there and draw one. It was cold, so it helped knowing that top of that ridge is sunny in mid-afternoon in winter, and that the bank of Mountain Laurel on the north side of the hill would block the chilling breeze.

Once there I wandered around to find an appropriate sized plant to draw. The big ones are, well, um...way too big and complex; the tiny ones, you guessed it, are too small. This plant's strappy leaves had enough curlies to be interesting and were about 8 inches long - a good size for an hour-long drawing session in a small journal.

I love the curly filaments that decorate the sword-shaped leaves. They make me wonder how and why a plant develops in this way. Do the curls have a purpose? If so, I can't imagine what it would be, but usually obvious features such as these have a function of some sort. Also, I have never seen these plants bloom, yet there are all ages represented up on the ridge, from tiny 3" leaves to the long 20" ones. Obviously some propagation is going on.

Daisy is not at all interested in the yuccas. She wanders while I draw, out of site but not out of hearing. When I get too cold to continue drawing, all I have to say is, "Daisy, come," and she is there to lead me out of the woods.


This shows how the yuccas grow in and around the rocks...

One of the big plants, taken last winter ...

The rocky ridge where the yuccas grow, taken last winter after a sleet storm.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Virginia Pine Cone

At 3:00 when we headed out it was 36 degrees and getting colder. Brrr... Daisy and I warmed up by hiking straight uphill into the mowed kudzu field, over the top of the hill. It's amazing how warm you become when hiking steeply uphill! We headed down the steep, old road to where there once was a small dam and a pond, at the headwaters of Meetinghouse Creek. On the way down we were in the shade, where the morning's ice crystals still jutted from banks of red clay. We left the road and hopped down the steep bank to the creek, following its winding bank all the way through Coon Hollow (named by me because of all the raccoon tracks we always found in the sand there), past two sunny pipelines, to the last, where Daisy and I finally settled in the sun to warm up. I'd been attracted to the daisy-like pinecone on this branch and picked it up, along with a deer vertebra, and some river birch bark. I thought I would draw all three, but when the sun dropped below the pines on the hill above us, all good intentions of "sticking with it" even in the cold, left with the sunlight. It immediately turned miserably cold. We immediately headed for home!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Parmotrema Lichen

The woods were cool and bright this afternoon as we hiked around in the crunchy, dry leaves, and stepped over numerous dead tree branches full of lichen. On one small branch near Meetinghouse Creek grew this beautiful Parmotrema perforatum lichen, covered with little brown-velvet-lined cups. Each cup had a little hole at the bottom. I sat on the ground and leaned against an oak tree for an hour or so to draw the small bunches of lichen. A Red-bellied Woodpecker chattered and chirred nearby, and a Blue Jay called his name somewhere across the pipeline, otherwise it was silent. Daisy slept beside me. Her friend, Atticus, who had hiked to the creek with us, became bored with me when I stopped to draw and took off on an adventure. He returned as we headed back uphill, toward home.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Life under the Snow

Nine days ago we had over 6 inches of snow, topped in the final hour with a crust of freezing rain. Unlike our usual southern here-today-gone-tomorrow snow storm, this one was followed by days of unusually cold weather, so it stayed and stayed and way overstayed its welcome. When the days finally warmed a little, it would melt the top layer of ice or snow, which would refreeze in the night. Our schools were closed for the whole week due to icy roads. And, even though I walked some, it was very difficult out here were there is no flat surface. I'm either hiking uphill or downhill, and the slick layer of ice that cracked with each step to let you sink 5 inches, made walking on it a joke. Even after clear spots of ground appeared, days of melt turned the ground to mud. I took a few walks, and some photos, but never did get to sit down with my journal.

So you can imagine how happy I was to look out the windows this morning and see that the snow was finally gone, washed away by this week's rain and warmer temps. The birds were singing like it was springtime. It was foggy early, but the sun burned it off in late morning and the temps rose to around 50 by 1:00. So nice. Daisy and I headed out for a hike on almost-dry ground - at least it wasn't muddy - and ended up sitting on the south-facing hill in the sun and drawing the tiny plants that I think are dormant this time of year. On that warm hill, watered with all the good nutrient filled snowmelt, some plants are already gearing up for spring.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Today was beautiful! Too bad I had to take down the Christmas tree and do a general post-Christmas cleanup. My goal, however, was to take Daisy on a walk at about 2:00, which I did.

We came upon horseback riders on the upper pipeline, so to keep Daisy and Atticus (Daisy's friend from across the street) out of the horses way, I called them and we crossed through the piney woods between the different lines and headed into the low land alongside Meetinghouse Creek. Lots of moss and lichen down there, and trees covered in polypores. It was cool in the shade of the steep rocky ridge that rises on either side of Meetinghouse, so I headed up to the high land of the native Yucca - a beautiful plant with strappy leaves edged with curling, peeling strands along the edges. I decided the Yucca needed more time to draw than I had today.

The Partridgeberry - a dainty little vine - was growing at the base of an oak tree near Old Thompson Road. There was an old rusty container that looked like it once held cigars - it was about the right size- and leaned against the tree, almost as if someone leaned it there intending to return.

Daisy and Atticus curled up for a little nap while I drew.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Winter Stems & A New Year's Resolution

We drove home from out of town today thinking the weather at home would be similar to where we woke up - sunny, temps almost 70. As we cruised up I-26 however, my incredibly smart phone told me that the weather at home was more like 52 degrees and foggy. No way! We were only 60 miles away, it couldn't be that different.

Oh yes, it could. Dense fog and damp chill welcomed us at the county line. So much for my plan of cutting back and cleaning out the perennial garden. The reports promised rain was close, so after unpacking, I slipped out for a walk with Daisy.

How I love the heading out part of our walks - the breaking away and putting real life on hold. It's such a free and peaceful feeling, and slowing down is the only way I have found to truly see the natural world. So today, while I wandered around the foggy woods and hilltop, I decided my New Year's Resolution for 2011 is to make that happen more often. It's difficult, even for me, but I challenge everyone reading this blog to think about a similar resolution for this new year - to get outside more, and to take intentionally slow strolls just to look around and see this amazing planet we live on. You don't have to be in the woods, you know. It could be your back yard, neighborhood, city street, a nearby park, maybe the grassy swath around your place of work during lunch hour. I can be done... try it.

Today I was only out for 30 minutes before the raindrops came. I'd worn a raincoat so I didn't rush back, but walked slowly, continuing to admire and pick the dried stems of many wildflowers, such as the whorled coreopsis (above) that grows in the woods and along the shady edge of the pipeline, as well as spiky thistle heads, fluffy dog fennel, and the twisty brown and white fuzzy leaves of rabbit tobacco. Daisy inspected each stem, as well, and pranced like a small horse when the cold drops started falling. We came in and made a fire to help dry us. All in all a great way to start the year.